Dallas — There is a reason that the cartoonish image of a busty woman clad in armor and a horned helm is often referenced when the layman seeks an association with the term “opera.” It is, after all, iconic of one of the most distinguished works from one of the most influential composers of his time, Richard Wagner.
The second installment of a massive tetralogy 25 years in the making, Die Walküre is the most frequently performed of the four parts of Wagner’s Ring cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). Understandably so, as it is quintessentially Wagnerian in style and production—big, boisterous, and having enormous dramatic scale and intensity—and contains one of the most recognizable musical preludes in the classical canon, “The Ride of the Valkyries.”
Any interpretation of this work requires a virtuosic approach, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s production last weekend was no exception. Led by conductor Jaap van Zweden, in his penultimate concert series as DSO music director, the massive orchestra, along with a cast of world-class soloists, graced the Meyerson Symphony Center’s stage with Die Walküre in opera concert style—without sets, costumes, and with very little staging.
The most impressive aspect of this performance came undoubtedly from Wotan, the chief of the gods. Not only because his voice masterfully brought the character to life, but also because bass-baritone Kyle Albertson spent the majority of Act I in the air, en route to Dallas from southern California. Hours before curtain, Matthias Goerne, originally casted as Wotan, canceled due to health reasons, and Albertson, who is currently preparing to cover the role in the San Francisco Opera’s upcoming production of the complete Ring Cycle, was summoned last minute, arriving just in time for his character’s first appearance in Act II.
Using a well-placed vocal score for reference, Albertson joined van Zweden and the rest of the cast seamlessly. His dramatic interpretation of the role fit perfectly with that of his castmates—the only other indication of his late entry being his black business suit against the formal concert attire of the other soloists and orchestra.
Most notably, Albertson’s interactions throughout the performance with his most beloved daughter, Brünnhilde (portrayed by soprano Heidi Melton) were ingenuously convincing. The bulk of Act III is marked by the dramatically disheartening exchange between father and daughter, as Wotan begrudgingly passes punitive judgement on her for acts of betrayal and disloyalty, casting her out of the paradise of Valhalla and condemning her to a mortal life of humiliation and ridicule. Melton’s stunning soprano is powerful and booming, as Wagnerian works often call for, while wrenchingly precise in intimate moments of desperation, like the Act III aria “War es so schmahlich.” Coupled with Albertson’s commanding, though endearing, baritone, these moments did not seem like an opera concert at all, rather a fully realized engagement of dramatic and musical interpretation.
The performance was full of sparkling instances like these, with each character claiming his or her own standout moment of their own. Tenor Simon O’Neill and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (DSO artist-in-residence) give the awkwardly tragic romance of their characters, Siegmund and Siedlinde respectively, a brightness and energy that led to a roaring standing ovation at the end of Act I. Maybe it was O’Neill’s trumpeting clearness on the drawn-out sounding of “Walse! Walse!” over the awesomely stirring tremolo of the string section, or the deep richness of DeYoung’s coy, but commanding, characterization in “Schlafst du, Gast?” Or maybe it was the impassioned lip-on-lip kiss and embrace between the two, which may have shocked an attendee or two considering the fact that Siegmund and Sieglinde are knowingly twins separated in their youth. Nevertheless, O’Neill and DeYoung brought power and intrigue to the whole concept of incest, and perhaps even a glimmer of artistic beauty.
Also standing out in Act I was Siegmund’s rival, and Sieglinde’s lawful husband, Hunding, portrayed by Jongmin Park’s authoritative and imposing bass. His vocal entrance into the drama was sobering, with a depth and weight that perfectly opposed the bright clarity of O’Neill’s tenor. Vocally, the two offered the audience a transportive portrayal of light versus dark, good versus evil; though, dramatically, the violent exchange that ultimately leads to the death of both characters was pantomimed with lackluster commitment.
Mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer gave Fricka, Wotan’s long suffering wife and goddess of marriage and fertility, an unyielding sense of brawn mixed expertly with the soft warmth of femininity indicative of her character. As a well-established Wagnerian, she employs a sound that is at once whole and piercing, filling the space with just the right amount of active vibrato.
The most stirring and thrilling part of the performance came from Act III. The familiar opening fanfare of “Ride of the Valkyries,” aggressively sweeping upward, was exhilarating to hear in its original context. The powerhouse chorus of Brünnhilde’s eight sisters, arranged in two neat rows and tucked behind the bass section of the orchestra, created a heady wall of sound as they exchanged haughty greetings, laugh with cascading chromaticisms, and share triumphant battle cries of “Hojotoho!” Together, they provide a ringing polyphony that paints the stage with the heavenly backdrop of Valhalla, and the crucial dramatic nuance that drives the urgency of the plot.
As conductor Jaap van Zweden draws near to the end of his Dallas career, he displays a true command on the artform with this production. His collaboration with the soloist and musicians on stage throughout this huge romantic work demonstrates his keen abilities of navigation and interpretation, as together they laid out nearly five hours of penetrating fantasy to a nearly sold-out house.